14 June, 2012
Human Rights Activists Seema Azad and her husband Vishvavijay have been awarded life imprisonment by a lower court in Allahabad on charges of sedition, waging war against nation under the provision of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The district judge Sunil Kumar Singh also slapped a fine of Rs 70,000 on the couple. It has to be noted that both Seema and Vishwavijay were shown arrested in police record at the Allahabad Railway station when they were returning from Delhi after participating in the World Book Fair on February 6th, 2010 by the Special Task Force. The police had ‘recovered’ ‘offensive’ literature of Mao, Che-Guevara and Lenin from them. According to police they were associated with Communist Party of India (Maoist) which is banned in the country. Since then, all the efforts to get the release by the human rights organizations have failed. Now, this judgment by a lower court has shocked the nation as they are again questioning whether any association if it is with any one makes you criminal. Whether possession of so called ‘banned’ literature is crime? Can the government of India come out clearly what is a ‘banned’ literature?
Hundreds of activists, theatre artists are facing police torture in different jails of India for promoting ‘banned’ literature. They are being charged with ‘war against state’. Even writing an article or doing a fact finding in the forest areas where big companies have ravaged our beautiful forests and suppressed innocent tribal are act of ‘war on nation’. Any protest against the current mode of governance is a war on nation. Seema and Vishwvijay had been scholars at Allahabad University. Both of them were sensitive to the human rights issues of the poor particularly the Dalits and farmers. Seema Azad was the editor of bimonthly magazine ‘Dastak’ which has been publishing reports about land acquisition as well as terror of mining mafia in the Bundelkhand regions particularly adjacent to Allahabad such as Koshambi and Shankargarh. In both these regions, Dalits and the Kol Adivasis are exploited by the stone and quarry mafia and any effort to organize them is met with the severe terror by these mafias. As reported, Vishwavijaya was active in the University politics and ideologically closure to the marginalized communities and their efforts to get justice against exploitation. They investigated many cases and published their fact finding reports. As members of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) they were part of many human rights investigations and protest movements all across the country. They brought out report against the malpractices in the Ganga Express Highway which was displacing thousands of farmers and poor people in Uttar-Pradesh. We all know Ganga is the latest victim of not just mining mafia but ‘developmental terrorists’ too. ‘Dastak’ reported how the Muslim youths in Azamgarh were being branded as ‘terrorist’ by the investigating agencies and their parents were facing allegation and humiliation in public.
The arrest itself was dramatic from the railway station. They were charged for being member of CPI (Maoist) and shown to have possessed Maoist literature. Now the court has found them guilty and pronounced a harsh verdict of life imprisonment and a fine of Rs seventy thousand. The two sensitive souls who dare to write against the state terror are now declared ‘terrorists’ by the court. It is shocking how the lower courts do not even follow the preceding verdict of similar nature in the Binayak Sen Case when the apex court actually suggested that reading any kind of literature is not a crime. The court has also said that even being member of a banned organization does not amount to a crime unless somebody is directly linked with any kind of terror activities. It is unfortunate that the lower courts did not question the police version and went on for harsher punishment without really hearing the other side of the story.
The time for human rights activist is tough as the courts which have always upheld fundamental rights of individuals in the past through their historic judgments are unable to carry the same legacy. Why are the authorities so much worried on our writings even when all of us are expressing nonviolently and arguing for the human rights of the people? Our assemblies and Parliament have number of people who have criminal cases of serious nature against them. They are not simply political cases but related to heinous crime like rapes and murders and yet they become our law makers. In Uttar-Pradesh, Mafias are still enjoying their day as most of them have greater stake in mining, quarrying and other government programmes which are meant to serve the poor. The courts have not covered them with great glory and we have seen person who should have been in the Jail are now ruling the state. It is deeply dissatisfying moments that scholars who defy the popular myths have to face the people’s terror but those who defy the stated position of the state are being targeted in such a way that it would be difficult for ideologically strong people to join the people’s movement. It is shocking that bright young scholars who could have got fanciful job elsewhere decided to devote their lives for the cause of the people and the outcome is disappointing. Rather than appreciating their contribution for the cause of human rights and dignity of the people, an issue which Indian state should have done it long back, and the state apparatus is terrorizing them and branding them with different names.
Can Indian state really challenge the power of ideas? A country where literacy rate is dismal and where the gender discrimination is growing and showing negative growth, sending ideologues to jail will only prove that we are afraid of ideas. The state can accommodate the goons to become political leaders. It can accommodate all kind of people who are not a ‘threat’ to the stated anti people position of the state. All those are in the good books of the state as ‘people’ have ‘elected’ them but ‘writer’ or an ‘activist’ is not ‘elected’ hence you are free to arrest them and humiliate them. It is a great sign of depression. Nothing much will happen if we do not attain 9% growth but more and more writers, activists, film makers face threat from the Indian state for loving freedom and expressing solidarity with those who are victim of ‘developmental terrorism’ and such a situation will send India into real depression. We faced the state repression during emergency in 1975 but what is being seen today is much larger as State is not alone in its activities against people. It is using mass media and ‘developmental’ agencies against ‘people’s voices. It is justifying its misdeeds in the name of ‘democracy’ where ‘majoritarian’ voices even if they are wrong, have to be ‘respected. That is why, despite cry of Bastar’s tribal or Kudankulan’s people to save their lives, the Indian state and its middle classes still talk about ‘nation building’ even when the cost of human lives is too high in the affected regions.
A few months ago, we all showed our solidarity with Salman Rushdie when he was wrongly denied visit to Jaipur Book Festival as his visit would cause ‘law and order problem’. We all know why Rushdie is an unwanted man in India despite being citizen of this country. We felt that as a writer he has a right to speak and his freedom of expression must be respected. Our media and their loudspeakers continued for days for the freedom of expression hounding Muslims as if all other religious minds respect that freedom. People like us supported Rushdie’s right to express his views despite our differences of his depiction of Islam. But what is most unfortunate is that this freedom of expression is reserved for the power elite of this country and therefore there would not be such special shows on our mainstream programmes and newspapers which condemn the illegal arrest and detention of Seema Azad. How can you deny me my write to read something? Should the state has the power what I should read and what not? If reading Maoist literature is a crime then this crime is being committed by millions of Indians and let the government send all of them to jail. Government must act on the things where it is wanted to work and not to decide about our choices to read or write.
The threat to freedom of expression in India is real particularly if you are speaking against the stated policies of the state which have a near ‘unanimity’ among political parties. Of course, we will have to think whether Indian people are only represented by political parties or are there other elements also who represent people. But as a writer and activist and not claiming to speak on anybody’s behalf, I would like to state that has not freedom to read and write come with my fundamental right and it is not necessary for me to justify my writing and speeches as how many people read it or like it. It is time for us to respect international covenants and human rights laws so that we really become a society which respects freedom to read and write despite political and ideological differences. Let the government of India respect of fundamental rights and not afraid of our ideas to serve our people. The essence of a true democracy is in respecting the dissenting voices and trying to integrate them by accepting their viewpoints too. All those dissenters who are writing are not asking anything for themselves. They too have worked tirelessly for the people and it would not bring any glory to Indian democracy if we continue to treat our dissenters as terrorists. We hope the higher courts will rectify the error committed by the lower court by releasing Seema and Vishwavijay unconditionally as well as honorably.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at www.manukhsi.blogspot.com